A Journey to South Africa

Published: August 17th 2018
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A Journey to South Africa

By William Graham

Poet, novelist and travel writer William Graham holds a BA and MA in English and a MS in Communication from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He lives in Stowe, Vermont. His most recent book is Border Crossings: Travel Essays and Poems.

At five o’clock on an August afternoon at the Sabi Sand Game Reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park in South Africa, the southern hemisphere’s winter sun was dropping fast behind the trees. Long shadows fell across the dry savannah woodlands. From the shadows of the bush, our guide and his tracker noticed an African wild dog trotting warily. Then another and another appeared until there was a pack of four wild dogs, which had distinctive brown, black, yellow and white patchwork markings, and large ears shaped like those of a bat. “The African wild dog is the second most endangered species in Africa; the Ethiopian wolf is considered the most endangered. There are only about 250 wild dogs in South Africa and about 5,000 left in all of Africa,” he explained, clearly excited to have spotted the pack.

“They are gathering for their nightly hunt,” the guide continued. “Let’s follow them.” At which point he gunned his indestructible truck and headed cross-country to follow the pack. We plowed through small bushes and trees, and up and down steep ravines, always keeping the pack in view. I was trying to hold on for dear life. We were the four-wheeled fifth member of the pack. As for the wild dogs, they saw us following them, but they didn’t seem to mind. They were intent on following the scent of an impala herd. We followed the pack for over an hour as darkness crept over the savannah. Then the pack ran into a thick area of bush and we lost them in the darkness. The following morning, we were out again, and encountered a clan of hyenas fighting over the scraps of the wild dogs’ kill. This was nature “red in tooth and claw.”

This is just one exciting episode in a magical and memorable journey to South Africa that my family and I took in August 2018. The Sabi Sand Game Reserve consists of over 160,000 acres next to the five million acres of Kruger National Park. For the animals, however, there is no distinction between reserve and park as they are free to roam without being inhibited by fences. Indeed, there was no fencing around Kirkman’s Kamp where we stayed. Outside of our lodging we encountered baboons, warthogs, monkeys, hyenas, kudu and a variety of other antelopes. At night, we had to be escorted back to our rooms by a guard because more dangerous animals like leopards, lions and wild dogs have been known to roam near or in the camp. One of the escorts informed me that just the week before we arrived a pack of wild dogs had killed a small antelope right outside of a guest’s lodging. That’s something you are unlikely to encounter at your generic chain hotel.

During our stay at Kirkman’s, which was once a big game hunting lodge dating back to the 1920s, we went on seven safaris over four days with our guide/driver and a tracker from the Shangaan tribe. We affectionately dubbed our tracker “Superman” for his ability to see and hear animals when no one else could. Each day we went on a morning and an afternoon safari when the weather was cool enough for the animals to be active. On these excursions, we were up close and personal with a stunning array of animals, including the so-called Big Five: lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant. This designation is a legacy of the era of big game hunting. These animals were considered the most dangerous to hunt because the hunter could be killed by any of them. In addition to the Big Five, we also saw many giraffes, hippos, wildebeests, and countless species of birds and antelopes, including elands, kudus, nyalas, grey duikers and springboks.

What was truly unexpected and thrilling was how close our guide could maneuver his vehicle to these creatures, who were curious but not afraid. For example, one morning we came upon a young male leopard who had just made a kill of an impala, which had been pulled up into a nearby tree to protect it from roaming hyenas. The leopard lounged no more than three feet in front of us—its belly full, preparing to snooze until dusk. We were warned, however, to remain seated always because such a sudden movement could trigger an aggressive response from the leopard. We all snapped our photos dutifully in our seats.

But one day I was able to go on a bush walk instead of a drive with my rifle-toting guide. It was wonderful experience to walk through the bush, to touch the plants and to follow animal trails. But the guide was always wary. For instance, we had to carefully maneuver around a small herd of male buffalo who were staring us down. “Some animals do a mock charge,” the guide explained. “But not a buffalo. When they charge, they mean business.”

The entire stay at Kirkman’s was a thrilling experience. Each night we headed back to camp to enjoy fabulously prepared dinners featuring such exotic fare as eland, kudu and ostrich under the brilliant African night sky, where Mars, Venus and Saturn glowed brightly amidst the starry slosh of the Milky Way.

On a less sublime but quirkier note, however, I came away from the safaris with new knowledge about the unique and colorful collective nouns for a variety of animals. Here are some of the best as told to me by our guide:

· A congress of baboons

· A clan of hyenas

· A crash of rhinos

· A dazzle of zebras

· A journey of giraffes

· A parliament of owls

· A leap of leopards

· A gulp of swallows

Although the stay at the Sabi Sand Game Reserve provided the wildlife experience that most people associate with Africa, we wanted to see other parts of South Africa, a large and diverse country that still struggles with the aftermath of apartheid. We heard from many people about the high unemployment rate of over 30 percent, and of the persistent racial and tribal conflicts and economic disparities.

Nowhere were the economic contrasts so vividly evident as in Cape Town, a magnificently beautiful and westernized city of about 4.5 million residents over which the hulking Table Mountain looms. On the drive to our waterfront lodging from the airport, we passed mile after mile of townships where people live in small houses cobbled together with

corrugated metal and cement blocks. During the apartheid era, tens of thousands of non-whites (people designated as colored or black) were pushed out of the city center to these dusty, distant neighborhoods.

The township residents hop into small mini-buses each day for the long commute into Cape Town to work in offices, hotels or private homes. That is, the ones who are lucky enough to have a job. When visiting Cape Town, one cannot escape the cruel legacy of apartheid. But while there is much work that needs to be done to remedy economic and social injustices, there is a great deal of natural beauty to enjoy in Cape Town and the nearby Cape Peninsula, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans converge.

For example, the bustling waterfront district of Cape Town—chocked full of upscale shops and restaurants--reminded me of the harbor areas of Boston and San Francisco. One day we took a drive to Simon’s Town, which has a thriving colony of African penguins—not a species one readily associates with Africa. The route to the penguin colony took us past magnificent seaside communities where luxurious, heavily fortified houses teetered on the sides of cliffs and spilled down the hills to the sea. Our guide informed us that many of these homes are owned by wealthy foreigners who come to bask in the stunning landscape of the Cape.

Of course, no stay in Cape Town would be complete without taking a cable car ride to the top of the 3,500-foot tall Table Mountain. Intrepid hikers can also slog to the top, but in the interest of time, we took the easy way up. At the summit, we had clear skies that revealed stunning vistas of the city, ocean and mountains. But the weather was brutally cold. We all shivered from the stiff breeze in the waning winter light. (Note: Our only disappointment on our visit to Cape Town was not being able to visit Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was jailed for over 17 years. High seas prevented the ferry from taking visitors to the island for five straight days.)

From Cape Town, we headed to the Winelands, the center of South Africa’s bustling wine industry. We stayed in the lovely town of Franschhoek, which was nestled against the rugged Dragon Mountains. While in the Winelands, we decided that there was no better way to experience it than spending a full day visiting three different wineries and tasting 15 different wines paired with cheeses and chocolates. It was an admittedly decadent way to spend a day. But we had a driver ferry us from winery to winery as the buzz in our heads increased as the day wore on.

From lions and leopards to chardonnays, South Africa surprised and delighted at every turn. The sojourn there was one of the most diverse and satisfying I have taken. Each day that I was there I reminded myself that every human being has a bit of African DNA in their bodies. A trip to Africa is, in a true genetic sense, a visit to the Mother Land of us all.


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